Finches, sparrows abound as autumn approaches

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By Sylvia Brockner

After a hard rain during the night, the morning of Aug. 30 was damp, misty, humid, partly cloudy, partly sunny, foggy, hazy and warm, with a slight breeze that would sway the tall grasses and flowers occasionally just enough to send a raindrop rolling off.

There was a definite feeling of autumn in the air that Sunday morning and an unusual number of birds in the yard and at the feeders. I was only getting quick flashes of them from the window, so I finally went out on the carport where I could see over a larger area and follow them from place to place.

It turned out that most of the birds were immature sparrows and finches and some of their various relatives. They were beautiful but confusing on this misty morning. A friend recently said to me, “I was reading an article about sparrows the other day, and it said there were at least 70 species of sparrows. Is that true?”

Out of curiosity, I counted all the species listed in the Bent’s series on “North American Birds,” and the three volumes included 246 species in the index. However, that included all the species, subspecies, as well as the cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, towhees, finches, sparrows and allies. I suppose if you counted only the birds that actually have “sparrow” in their names, such as song sparrow, then there might be about 70 sparrows. All of the birds listed above, however, are closely related and considered to be members of the finch family, although only a portion of them actually have “finch” in their name.

The newcomers to my yard that Sunday were all members of the finch family. Mostly they were immature birds, still in their juvenile plumage, which was mostly streaked brown with some other flecks of color to help me identify them. Brown streaks with a wash of pink identified young house finches, which were still trying to beg for food but were not having much luck. Next were half a dozen green-tailed towhees, streaked brown with an olive wash and a median streak of dark red on their heads. Four or five American goldfinches were all molting into their olive-green winter plumage, the adults still showing a few splashes of bright yellow and the immature ones mostly streaked brown with a yellowish-olive wash.

The unusual half-dozen pine siskins were feeding beneath the feeder in various phases of plumage. Chickadees, nuthatches and the usual downy and hairy woodpeckers were also at the feeders. Chipping sparrows were also in the flock. They ranged from the pair that nested locally and their young as well as migrant young, which were still in their immature brown streaks and just acquiring their streaked heads.

Two or three house wrens also joined the excited group to see what was going on, although they were probably the local yokels that I have been seeing every day in the year.

Two bigger brown birds escaped identification by flying down into the valley and disappearing into the willows. I thought they were perhaps spotted towhees, for I thought I caught a bit of rust along their flanks, and two larger birds with red backs that also disappeared into the valley were probably red crossbills.

On Wednesday, Sept. 2, two “confusing fall warblers” were in the yard, but that’s as close as I can come to identifying them. They were fairly consistently olive-green above with no wing bars, no eye rings and fairly bright yellow underparts.

I wish one of the sparrow and finch savants would come here to do a weekend workshop for us. Perhaps next late August or fall we could get someone to do a workshop one day with photographs, etc., followed by a field trip the next day to look for the field marks we learn the day before.

I know that head and face marking are important in sparrows, but it’s one thing to see it in a photograph and another to see it in the field. They are difficult. There are not nearly as many species of sparrows here in the West as there are in the East.

Our best chance for a variety is out on the plains in such places as Barr Lake, where there are thickets of shrubs. Although I saw one flock of early-fall migrants coming through a week and a half ago, there will be more coming down from the north, and a few will winter along the edge of the mountains.